April 7, 2009

 

DETROIT (AP) -The horn had barely sounded when Danny Green ran onto the court waving a towel, followed closely by Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and the rest of their North Carolina teammates. They ran to midcourt, mobbed each other and jumped around on the Final Four logo.

This was the moment they hoped for.

This was the reason they stayed.

And with Monday night's 89-72 win over Michigan State, the Tar Heel quartet who considered a jump to the NBA as underclassmen last year have accomplished what they came back to school to do.

They've won the program's fifth NCAA championship.

"We came back to accomplish something," Green said. "We had to make some sacrifices. We had to give up a lot of individual things to make this work. I think we did a great job the whole season of being selfless and sharing the ball with each other and sacrificing.

"There were some times were we had some slip-ups, but for the most part, I think we did a great job of working with other and leaning on each other - especially in March."

Hansbrough finished with 18 points, the final game of a career in which he set the Atlantic Coast Conference's scoring record and the school's rebounding mark.

Lawson had 21 points and a championship game-record eight steals, while Ellington scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half to help the Tar Heels take a commanding lead. He ended the night as the Final Four's most outstanding player. Green had just six points before fouling out with 1:41 to play.

Still, the stats didn't matter. Not to a team that had carried the Tar Heels to a regional championship game in 2007 and a Final Four last season, only to fall short each time.

But not this time. They roared out of the gate to take a double-digit lead in the first 4 minutes and made enough plays near the end to thwart the Spartans' desperate, but ultimately futile, comeback attempts.

"No one tried to play over their head and try to do things they weren't able to do," junior Deon Thompson said of the quartet. "They just did things this team needed them to do to win the game."

The moment was particularly sweet for Hansbrough, who talked openly about how badly he wanted to win a championship from the moment he arrived in Chapel Hill in 2005. He became one of the few four-year stars seemingly left in the college game and the first returning AP national player of the year since Shaquille O'Neal in 1991.

Early Tuesday morning, he was sitting in his locker at Ford Field wearing a clipped-down net around his neck - proof that he had indeed achieved his long-awaited goal.

"A lot of outside people were saying we have to win it all or it's going to be a failure," he said. "Well, you know what? It's not a failure. We came back to win a championship. We did and we got the job done. There was a lot of pressure, but no one's disappointed in this locker room."

Lawson, Ellington and Green all opted to enter the NBA draft so they could work out for teams. But coach Roy Williams said none had the guaranteed draft position they wanted - Ellington and Green didn't figure to be first-round picks - so they opted to come back for another push.

With their top six scorers back, the Tar Heels were an unanimous preseason pick to win the national championship. They played through injuries and under the weight of impossibly high expectations, including questions of whether they would go unbeaten. Hansbrough - praised for his determination and gritty work ethic - was even criticized for his game not being what it was last season.

But it all paid off Monday night, when they completed a dominating run through the NCAA tournament in which they won every game by at least 12 points. They were the first team to win every game by double figures on the way to the title since Duke in 2001.

Williams pulled his starters with 63 seconds left. Hansbrough walked right to his coach and greeted him with a bear hug before joining his celebrating teammates down the bench. Lawson and Ellington followed, their final moment in a championship run a year in the making.

"This was our only chance to win this championship with everybody being together," Lawson said. "It was probably a little added pressure, but we really didn't think about it too much because (Williams) was like, 'If you play your game, there's really nobody in the country who can beat us."'